The Spiritual Gardener: Jasmine, Camellia and Cherry Pits
One of the indispensable things every gardener needs is a keen and obliging gardening assistant. I have one of these, and he is of the canine variety. I tried to go out with him on Saturday to clean up the crescent bed’s weeds in the weak mid-afternoon sunshine during that one hour when it is just not quite bitter, and we were both so looking forward to a bit of mucking out time together. He is not much help with the weeding, confidentially, but he is indefatigable and rather a terror with the squirrels and robins, the poor things, and God forbid a rabbit should ever appear on our property – that makes him furious. We didn’t get very far on the mucking out project, however, finding the ground frozen solid and all the debris pasted down to the frozen earth with ice. I chopped at this mess a few times just to be sure it was hopeless, before giving up and going on a long winter ramble instead, and that suited Cosimo just fine.
Besides the frozen ground, there are other obstacles to progress in the garden. A friend of mine has invented a garden stake that holds her wineglass while she weeds and I was amazed at the revelation that you could drink wine while gardening. Wine gardening, what a concept! I never knew. And just think of all the other accoutrements that could be added to make wine-gardening even more pleasurable. The result would be that more and more hours would be spent everywhere in gardens but less and less productively, I would imagine.
You know how sometimes, after a glass of wine, perhaps, or from some other source of inspiration, you get a gardening idea into your head and then you turn it over, examining it from every angle for, oh, about five years before doing anything about it? I have been doing that with jasmine, of all things, and my thoughts would run in these grooves: What is jasmine exactly? Is it hearty enough for New Jersey? Could its perfume really be as intoxicating as garden writers rhapsodize it to be? There must be something to it, they can’t all be mad. Most of them are, of course, quite mad.
Gardeners are dreamers and, unlike mere mortals, we are not required to live in the present “polar vortex” that is making life so unpleasant for most of North America. Instead, we live in a land of dazzling sunlight and brilliant color.
And thinking of camellias, I just embarked upon the enormous new collection of letters by the fabulous Mitford sisters. I am currently in the pre-war years; there are lots of letters about jolly visits to Berlin and Munich and what a peach that dear Adolph Hitler was really, and the silly thing he said to us the other day, how we all laughed, my dear, it was too wonderful, do admit. It is all very sickening, knowing as we do and they of course do not, what comes next.
But anyway one of the letters digresses and tells the story of an extremely magnificent family friend who imperiously accosts a humble gardener at the fabulous Kew Gardens, demanding advice about blight, as follows: “Good afternoon. Camellias, dropping of flower buds, please?” The gardener simply grunts and dismissively replies with a single scornful word: “Overfeeding”, and scuttles off in the undergrowth about his work, no doubt having already answered the same question one hundred times. And that is why, in case you were wondering, that lately I find myself creeping through my own frozen gardens, crazily muttering the word “Overfeeding!” every so often and laughing crazily too, no doubt adding somewhat to my local reputation for eccentricity.
And thinking of Hitler, recently I re-read the magisterial history of Hitler’s demise written by Hugh Trevor-Roper, The Last Days of Hitler. What a wonderful work of scholarship this is and what a gripping story it tells of those dramatic final days of the war in Europe. And it reminded me of the time when he was the Regius Professor of History at Oxford, but not yet Lord Dacre, and I would see him just walking around the streets of Oxford, like an ordinary human, and I would watch him, in awe. Once he came to Magdalen, to dine with the dons at our High Table. We had stewed cherries for dessert and we lowly undergraduates would pelt him with cherry pits while he ate. I don’t know why, really. Apparently it’s been done by undergraduates for years and was just one of those Oxford things. But he seemed to find it highly amusing and so of course did we. He just sat there hunched over his bowl of soup, spooning up his dinner and chuckling silently to himself, receiving the friendly compliment of a steady tattoo of cherry pits.